Why I don’t own a photo printer

If you’ve followed my posts here or viewed my photo galleries, than you know that my bride and I took a trip to the American Southwest last fall. Although it was a vacation to celebrate our anniversary, I did manage to make about 2,000 images when she wasn’t looking. Ok, she was looking and actually proved to be a terrific photo assistant, scout and critic.

So naturally, with that many photos of such a beautiful area, I had to blow some up for prominent placement around the house. I recently ordered three 11×14’s on metallic paper from AdoramaPix and waited anxiously for their arrival.

If you’ve ever printed on metallic at a reputable lab, then you know that the results can be amazing. What follows are the three images, but these views don’t do them justice, compared to the printed versions.

Two of my photos took on a 3-dimensional quality – practically leaping from the paper and I was thrilled.

Entering Monumnet Valley

Monument Valley Sunrise
The third however was a little flat, particularly across the middle third.

The Grand CanyonI knew something was wrong because the digital file had consistent color and contrast throughout.

So I placed a quick call to AdoramaPix customer service, where a helpful young lady looked up my order and offered to reprint the image.

In three days I had the corrected image delivered, and like the other two, it is outstanding.

This incident reminded me why I made the decision several years ago to NOT own a photo printer. Instead, I have all of my printing done outside, by two labs, the choice of which is determined based on my needs at the moment. I wanted to share the reasons for my decision with you here, and invite your feedback.

Cost. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has owned a photo printer. The Sunday flyers are full of under $100 photo printers, and often offer low priced all-in-ones that print, fax, scan, and brush your teeth. But as the razor blade companies discovered long ago, if you (practically) give away the printer, the money will be made on the ink. It’s incredible that the printer itself, which embodies electronics, mechanics, a CPU, requires assembly and testing and shipping, can be virtually free to us, while a cartridge of ink can be priced as if it contains precious emollients. I mean really, $30, $60, $100 to re-ink your printer? And to add insult to injury, most printed manufacturers ship their devices with a “starter” ink cartridge, which translates to “not full”, hence you’ll be back to the retailer who sold you the printer much sooner than you anticipated.

Outside labs on the other hand will print 4×6’s for 15 to 25 cents each, and an 8×10 might set you back $1.49. And that’s if you don’t take advantage of a special sale or order in quantity.

It’s just not economical to own a printer. And that’s without even considering the cost of paper…

Quality. We just finished talking about the low cost of printers. But of course, to get professional quality printing, the low-end units won’t deliver. You need to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars to approach the quality of a professional lab. Top quality papers and fade-proof inks also come at a cost. So, unless you are a pro and can justify these expenses, your home printer just can’t give you the quality that you can get from a lab. And if you’ve invested your time and effort and in quality camera gear in order to make a great image, why would you cheap out on the finished product?

Labs on the other hand have and maintain the equipment, inks, papers and trained personnel to produce top quality prints. Their reputation depends on it. In addition to equipment and material considerations, there’s the matter of calibration. Try as I might, I’m just not going to calibrate my laptop and desktop monitors, along with my printer successfully. Pro labs on the other hand, will correct your image if you let them, and I do, with excellent results.

Choices. Matte, satin, glossy finish? Metallic paper, gallery wraps? You just can’t come close to meeting all the options that a lab offers versus a personal printer on your own.

Convenience. OK, some might argue that having a printer in the next room is more convenient than dealing with an outside printer. And they’d be right, if the printer in the next room has ink, they have the right paper, and the nozzles are clean, the heads are aligned and no other maintenance is needed. But that’s a lot of “if’s”. My experience has been that despite The Great Recession, Murphy still has a job, and his law always kicked in whenever I needed to print. A planned quick print turned into a great deal of time spent cleaning and testing the unit, shaking ink cartridges, and worst case, running out for more ink or paper or Advil.

Photo labs however, again because they’re a business and their reputation is at stake, always have all needed supplies and perform maintenance regularly. And if they don’t, they deal with it and I don’t even know about it. In the long run, I find it more convenient to use the lab.

For my everyday printing needs, I’ll upload to Costco and I can pick-up my prints within an hour, or they’ll mail them to me. By “everyday printing”, I mean a batch of 4×6’s to give away, a 5×7 or 8×10 for the office, etc. Lest you think Costco printing to be inferior, I’ve been printing with them since my days as a 35mm film shooter with very good results. Many pro’s have said the same.

For my serious printing, it’s AdoramaPix, and I’ve already described how good they are. And by serious, I mean gallery quality, as in “I really want to show off this masterpiece” kinds of photos. I don’t print many of those, but it’s comforting to know I can, with confidence.

For me, there are just too many reasons to not own a photo printer and to rely on a lab. What do you do and why?

Please let us know your thoughts, and thanks for visiting 2 Guys Photo.

– Posted by Ed using BlogPress from my iPhone


About Ed Spadoni

www.2GuysPhoto.com "Thoughts and opinions, resources and experiences… for emerging photographers everywhere."
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15 Responses to Why I don’t own a photo printer

  1. Mark James says:

    I work for Xerox and do a lot of my printing at the office. Larger then 13×19 I take to the printer but here it gets very expensive and a 16×20 costs $15.

  2. Unless you are selling a lot of fine art prints it really doesn’t make any sense in the US to own a large format printer. But if you are, and you are an experienced printer, then you can eke every bit of quality out of your prints. You can also use specialty papers that labs don’t normally have.

    If you like in a country where, like mine, there are no high quality, large format labs, then you have to buy your own. Well, if you are lucky enough to have a demand for your prints, unlike me 🙂

  3. Hillary Shemin says:

    Another wonderful post Ed! I tend to default to SmugMug’s Bay Photo vendor. Their quality is wonderful and buying online straight from SmugMug is very convenient. We have a wonderful local photo business near us that is family owned ‘NEW YORK CAMERA AND VIDEO’ in Southampton, PA and recently I needed quick quality prints for a client and ordered through them so I could pick thm up. That worked out well and they do a lot of pro lab work so I know they stand behind their prints and have great quality, too. I may use them more going forward All in all, I agree, it is not worth it to print at home for me!!!

  4. Prentis Drew says:

    Everything you said is right on the money (no pun intended). For me I have had excellent results with my HP Photosmart C8000 series printer with Costco Kirkland Brand professional glossy inkjet photo paper. What makes it work for me is my Spyder2express monitor calibrator (which to me is essential). I like having the control of my prints…up to 8X10 of course. Yes it is a relatively cheap printer and yes the ink is expensive. As for cost effectiveness it is probably a push on a piecemeal basis if for no other reason than the gas expense not to mention the instant gratification and convenience factor. But for a whole bunch of 4X6 prints it’s off to Costco I go. Clearly for big frame-able prints a mail order lab is the only answer, AdoramaPix being only one of many (which I assume is east coast centric).

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Hi Prentis – thanks for the comment. That’s the beauty of it – we have choices that we can make as appropriate for the situation. Adorama is based in NYC but I’m sure they operate nationally. Ed

  5. I agree, the cost of the equipement, supplies, and frustration can buy a whole lot of commercial prints along with their expertise and advice. I believe it is worth paying an expert o do what he is good at. I’ll spend my time doing what I’m good at. That way, we all win.

  6. I don’t print at home. All the reasons you mentioned! Add I’ll get more gray hair trying to get things to line up correctly. It’s not just the base cost for me…add the costs of fixing my pritning mistakes too.

  7. arthill says:

    All good points and nothing I really can take issue with. Over the years I’ve ordered a lot of prints from online sources including things like 20X24 canvas wrap prints. I’ve ordered plenty of 4X6’s too. Still I own a photo printer though. First of all, I need a printer, scanner and copier. I might have gotten one that doesn’t do photo prints but I like being able to print things at home in limited quantities. When I see a picture I especially like of one of the grandkids, I print it out right away and go stick it on the refrigerator. Ordering one print from anywhere just doesn’t make sense to me. I also print things that are difficult (perhaps not impossible) to order from any of the sources you mention. I do photo greeting cards, inserts for photo mugs, small non-standard size pictures for pendants, small heart shaped frames, etc. I print out a few small wallet sized pictures for my wife’s journal. Is any of this cost effective? Probably not. But look in your camera bag and total up all the stuff in there that can hardly be cost justified. I could buy a lot of ink 🙂 For me it’s about convenience. I just last week bought a new Canon photo all-in-one that includes an adaptor for scanning slides. Tried it out today and was pretty impressed. Are the prints as good as a “pro” lab. Probably not. Are they more than good enough for the limited amount of printing I do? Absolutely.
    So I guess your argument for not owning a photo printer is not persuasive for me. You and others here have explained why It makes sense to do MOST of your photo printing with third parties but I just don’t see why those reasons preclude a printer with photo capabilities at home. Good post though.

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Hard to argue with any of your points Art. For occasional one-offs, it makes sense. My “occasional” use was so infrequent that I’d find the ink had evaporated and the nozzles clogged. So that wasn’t really an option.

      Ed Spadoni

      Via iPhone

  8. 2guysphoto says:

    I have a low end Canon color printer that basically came free when I bought my Mac (you always get a $100 printer credit when you buy a Mac, so as long as you discipline yourself to complete the on-line rebate process, the printer is a freebie). I agree with everything Ed has said, utilizing Adorama and MPIX for all my printing, but I must say that the Canon has saved the day on several occasions. Kids need a something in color for a school project… I get a request for a quick 5×7 photo to put into a frame for a last minute gift… I want to get a sense of the printed tonal range of a shot before sending out to get a large reprint…

    I’m glad I have it, even though the cost of the ink cartridges is obscene.


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